When we hear, “Christ died for our sins,” most of us probably assume we understand what that means. We think the phrase needs no explanation. But I’ve come to realize, what I thought it meant for Jesus to die for our sins was not an understanding rooted in Scripture. If we are going to understand the Gospel, we must understand what Paul really meant when he said, “Christ died for our sins.”
Typical Understanding of Jesus’ Death
This is what I used to think “Christ died for our sins” meant:
- Every individual has sinned.
- Because we’ve all sinned, we each deserve to die.
- But Jesus stepped in and took the death we deserve.
- Now, if you become a Christian, Jesus’ death is a substitute for your death.
Is that what you thought it meant for Christ to die for our sins? Consider some problems with that understanding:
First, if Jesus dying on a cross is a substitution for our death, why do Christians still die? That’s a question that always bothered me. If death is the penalty we all deserve, but Jesus took our place on the cross, shouldn’t that mean none of us die anymore?
Second, some might argue, “Well, that’s why his death was so horrific,” because he was saving us from the brutal and torturous death we all deserve. One problem with that is Jesus told everyone who followed him, they too might be crucified (Luke 14:27). When Jesus told people to take up their cross and follow him, it wasn’t a metaphor. Countless Christians in the first century were crucified, impaled, lit on fire, and fed to lions.
Many of us have tried to answer this puzzle by saying, “Jesus’ physical death saves us from spiritual death.” In other words, Jesus suffering and dying on the cross saves us from suffering forever in hell. The problem here is that the Bible doesn’t say anything like that. The phrase “spiritual death” is not found in Scripture.
A Better Understanding of Jesus’ Death
In the first century, Caesar ran the world; or at least he thought he did. Roman armies would destroy any group who rebelled against their rule. If a seditious group rose up, the Romans would defeat them, crucify the leaders, and perhaps even burn their city to the ground. People across the Empire gave their loyalty to Rome out of fear, knowing full well the wages of rebellion was crucifixion.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he used multiple parables to teach that though the presence of God had departed from Israel for awhile, God was still in charge and had returned to reclaim his kingdom. In his parables, Jesus made it clear that the Jewish leaders had not been good stewards of what had been entrusted to them. Every time God had sent a prophet, the leaders of Jerusalem abused and killed him. They deserved to be held responsible for their rebellion.
Like Isaiah hundreds of years before, Jesus warned them that they were in rebellion to God’s rule and foreign armies would come in and lay waste to their rebellious city,
And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh (Isaiah 66:24).
But the one who was crucified as a rebel, the one who took the punishment Jerusalem deserved, wasn’t the war-mongering zealots or the hypocritical religious leaders, but the meek, faithful, and loving Jesus. He willingly allowed himself to be offered up to the Romans as if he were the notorious rebel. As the high priest said, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50).
Jesus allowed himself to be treated as the sinful one, taken outside the camp and executed like a criminal, taking the sort of punishment the people collectively deserved.
The Messiah Died for Our Sins
Notice, when Paul talks about Jesus’ death, he doesn’t say, “Jesus died for our sins,” but “Christ died for our sins.” Of course, as I’m sure you know, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, but his title.
The word “Christ” means “anointed one.” It originally referred to the kings and priests of Israel, who were anointed with oil to indicate they had been chosen by God. The true “Anointed One” was to be both priest AND king (see Psalm 110; Genesis 14:18). The Messiah would be the one to both rule over and purify the people from their sins.
Jesus was acting as the true son of David when he allowed himself to be killed for his people’s rebellion. He knew the only way to rule over his redeemed people was to offer himself as their sacrificial lamb, to make atonement for all of their sin, trusting God to vindicate him and raise him up because of his innocence and his faithfulness.
In Accordance with the Scriptures
Notice that Paul emphasizes multiple times in 1 Corthinians 15, the Gospel story is “in accordance with Scripture.” Of course, the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) were the only Scriptures Paul knew at the time. And Paul doesn’t mean there are a few predictions in the Old Testament that can be pulled out of context to say, “See the prophets said it would all happen like this.”
Paul means the entire biblical narrative points to God providing a lamb (Genesis 22:8), a way for the exiled not to remain outcast (2 Samuel 14:14), and a selflessly loving and faithful King to bless and rule over the world (Psalm 2). What Jesus did for his people, as the Anointed Priestly King is the most fitting climax to Israel’s story.
It wasn’t just Jerusalem or Israel who needed an Anointed Priestly King to give himself on their behalf, it was all of humanity who had been rebellious and outcast. Jesus died the death the world collectively deserved. And by his blood, the Messiah “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and [he has] made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:9-10).
Jesus’ death doesn’t save us from dying. In fact, we’re called to lovingly die the same sort of death for each other (1 John 3:16). But Jesus’ death does mean that those who are united with him, both Jew and Gentile, are now part of the new Israel. We are the ones for whom the Messiah has offered himself as a sacrificial lamb to make us holy and reign over us as King.
Do you see how that’s slightly different than the way we typically explain Jesus’ death? The typical understanding is completely disconnected from the story of Israel, which means our typical explanation is not “in accordance with Scripture.”
I love you and God loves you,
P.S. If you haven’t already done so, make sure to read the introduction to this series, “What is the Gospel?” and make sure you’re subscribed to the e-mail list so you don’t miss “Part Two: He Was Buried.”